tuque /tūk/ n Canadian English, var. toque [19th c. Canadian French, from the French toque, from the Basque tauka] 1 A close-fitting knitted cap, often with a long tapering end or tassel or pompom. 2 fig Something quintessentially Canadian.
souq /sūk/ n from the Arabic سوق var. souk 1 An open-air marketplace. 2 fig A central meeting place for the circulation of news and ideas.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Buffalo Time

In Mandiapalli village, almost any time is buffalo time. You can set your watch—as much as you’d need to around here—to the events in the daily routine of Bubalus bubalis, the Indian domestic water buffalo: an animal responsible for most of livelihood around this village in southwestern Orissa.

At dawn, they’re on the move, herds as small as ten or as large as thirty, heading for pastures of dried paddy-field hay or fresh green grass. Late morning, their single-file parade moves from the heat of the field to the damp coolness of the wallow; a shady stretch of mud perhaps, or even a pond.

There are two kinds of animals in this world: those who wallow, and those who don’t. We who don’t might not know what we’re missing, until we see a herd of buffalo wallowing.

Afterwards, it is buffalo nap time. That’s the afternoon gone. Then comes the magic hour before sunset, when the herds are on the move again, crossing roads, blocking rush-hour traffic, moving with all the urgency and purpose of Grateful Dead concert.

The other day I was riding on the back of a motorbike through a herd of buffalo as they crossed a narrow road en masse at a lazy twenty-degree angle. Imagine a game of Frogger, only the obstacles have horns and large, bony asses. We maneuvered between tail and nose in a prize-worthy attempt, and just barely emerged on the other side of buffalo stink in time to reach a nearby tea stall.

People around here love the buffalo for its superiority to cattle and oxen for ploughing paddy fields. Hides are sold for leather. Chiseled bones and horns become decorative jewellery and amulets. Dung makes excellent cheap fuel and fertilizer. But most beloved of the buffalo’s attributes is the healthily high fat content of its milk.

Yes, even tea time is buffalo time.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The National Egg Co-ordination Committee

It all started about a year ago when my friend and I went up to work on his motorcycle, when I first noticed—off the side of a side road, about a half-mile from the railroad tracks in fact—a peculiar building. And this building, wouldn’t you know, had a chain across its entrance and a sign over top that read “National Egg Co-ordination Committee.”

Well I had never heard of a National Egg Co-ordination Committee before, so with a gleam in my eye, I rode off into the sunset in search of someone who could explain what it was.*

Turns out that none of my colleagues at the NGO I work with—almost all of whom pass this derelict building on the way to the office in a jungle village—knows what goes on at NECC. But they must have thought about it before, because when it piqued my interest, it was an opportunity for all of the jokes to come out of the bag.

One person said it was a government agency, set up within the bloated bureaucracy to count and tax the passage of eggs along the adjacent highway.

Another claimed it was a front for the mafia; albeit—I added—a front at which other mafia would, no doubt, derisively snicker.

Egg Pakoda:  Can't get this at Alice's Restaurant
Still a third person cracked wise that NECC exists to maintain the balance between omelettes and pakodas (well that's a hard-boiled egg, rolled in spicy, glowing-orange batter and deep fried), two opposing methods of egg preparation endemic to the local cuisine.

But the most resilient refrain for explicating the National Egg Co-ordination Committee is that, well, it must be an NGO—Non-Governmental Organization, that is—engaged in the work of taking grassroots egg coordination among the poor and marginalized people to the national level.

Presumably, this very minute, the coordination of eggs on a national scale is being done by a committee whose success at the village, block, district and state levels has been proved beyond question. With S.M.A.R.T. objectives, systematic Monitoring & Evaluation and a full-proof plan for Sustainability, the international donors have been boiling with optimism, scrambling to fund this innovative project; over-easy—you might say—in the yoke of their, um… souls.**

Yes, whether poached, sunny-side-up, or Benedictine, egg coordination is going national in India. Next up, the world.

Delicious organization
Remember, one egg is, well, just an egg. But three eggs, why three eggs is an organization. And fifty eggs, can you imagine fifty eggs all getting together for change? Friends that would be a movement.

And that’s what we have here: The National Egg Co-ordination Committee anti-uncoordination movement. And after all, that’s what development is really all about.

* With all due credit to Arlo.
**The author of this blog has just been whacked by the pun mafia.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Saora Tribe of Gajapati

The Saora are one of the oldest and most numerous of the 62 scheduled tribes of Orissa in southeastern India. The so-called Hill Saoras reside mainly in the remote district of Gajapati as well as neighbouring Ganjam and Koraput in the hilly region of the Eastern Ghats, near the border with Andhra Pradesh.

It is believed that the name 'Saora' derives from 'Sawari' (also found as 'Seori'), an elderly woman who gave refuge to Rama during his journeys in the Hindu epic Ramayana.1

Their exact numbers are not known but it has been estimated that the population of Hill Saoras is approximately 300,000 in all areas. Relatively unique among Orissa tribes the Hill Saoras maintain a casteless society; this independent of the fact that over the past few generations a large minority of them have converted to Christianity (Baptist or Roman Catholic). Others practice a traditional though unorthodox fusion of Hinduism and tribal spiritual beliefs (often characterized as ‘animism’).

These Saoras maintain permanent settlements in pastoral villages surrounded by steep hills which are terraced for paddy and vegetable cultivation. They supplement their food supply with forest-produce gathering. Their social culture, far from being primitive (a term often ascribed—wrongly—to Orissa’s tribes), is remarkable for its sophisticated governance, communalism and gender equality.

Many Saoras in Gajapati district are now engaged in employments schemes such as NREGS and OREGS2, and often entire villages work together quarrying rocks, building roads and check dams, setting up community centres and clearing land for new cultivation. Many groups, especially women, engage in micro-finance livelihood initiatives by local NGOs.

Despite these developments, the Saora remain under the omnipresent threats of soil erosion and desertification, corruption, extreme poverty, lack of access to education and health care, forced migration, and nearly futile battles with government and the mining industry over land use and rights.

These photographs were taken over the course of several visits in 2010 to Saora communities in Mohana, Chandragiri, Tabme Gorjang and Gumma.

Click here to view the full photo gallery

1-Verrier Elwin, Tribal Myths of Orissa (vol. 1), 1954
2-National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and Orissa Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme